Churchill’s Secret Affair review – we shall frolic on the beaches

Channel 4’s documentary shows Britain’s hero from the second world war in a whole new light, and focuses on his penchant for dangerous liaisons

Hands up who wants to see Britain’s greatest ever leader, the nation’s saviour, in his trunks (quite high, quite tight), sliding headfirst and on his back down a big slippery slide into the sea? You’re in luck, finally, here in Churchill’s Secret Affair. His least dark hour, by the look of it, if not his finest one. Here he goes, weee … splash! Like an aerial torpedo fired across the Mediterranean. We shall frolic on the beaches, we shall frolic on the landing grounds.

When? Where? Why? We’re on the French Riviera in 1933, at the seaside pleasure palace of a glamorous actress who knew simply everyone, darling, and threw extravagant summer house-parties. Churchill, in the political wilderness at the time, often attended. Once with his wife, Clementine, a few times without. That part is crucial, because it was in her absence that the affair started.

Yes, I’m afraid so (to be fair, there is a clue in the title); cheat, cheat, cheat. Long rumoured, now confirmed in a recently-revealed 1985 interview with Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville. “This is a somewhat scandalous story and therefore not to be handed out for a great many years,” Colville said. Now those years are up, and the tape has been discovered by an American historian, Dr Warren Dockter. Doctor, Dockter, can’t you see I’m burning, burning … No? Thompson Twins? Maybe not your era. In which case he probably just sounds like the beginning of a joke. Anyway, he and the Churchill scholar Prof Richard Toye set out to get to bottom of this whole sordid business.

Doris Castlerosse in Venice, 1938.
Doris Castlerosse in Venice, 1938. Photograph: Private collection

The affair is confirmed by the family of Doris Castlerosse. She, the lady in question, a high-society socialite whose favourite saying was: “There’s no such thing as an impotent man, only an incompetent woman.” Such was her own competence that she managed to have an affair with Cecil Beaton, who was gay. She was notorious for the skill with which she slept her way up the social ladder of London; she had already had Randolph Churchill before graduating from son to father.

We needn’t feel too sorry for Clemmie. While Winston was sliding about with Doris on the Riviera (and painting her, three times, once reclining seductively), Clemmie was cruising the far east with an urbane man named Terrance, with whom she may or may not have had an affair. Those were the days, eh?

This wasn’t the finest hour for Winston and Clemmie’s relationship, then: D-day was even mentioned, as in divorce. But then an unlikely saviour came to rescue the marriage: Adolf Hitler. Winston realised that the threat from Nazi Germany might be more important than cavorting about in the south of France. Clemmie wanted to be at his side as he battled to wake the world up to the danger and later, when he took it on, they became a unit again.

So, big deal; powerful man has brief affair with serial mistress before going back to his wife – hardly the first time that’s happened. True, and Churchill’s reputation probably won’t suffer too much as a result, even if his marriage might have to be seen in a different light. It becomes more momentous when you start thinking about the what-ifs. What if the affair had carried on, and Winston’s eye had been more on Doris than what was going on in Berlin and Europe? What if Clemmie hadn’t returned to his side to be his rock? Would he have been able to summon up the same blood, toil, tears and sweat? Then we start to get into The Man in the High Castle territory. Plus, it’s a bloody good story. Outrageous toffs, adultery, fascists – what more could you want? Blackmail? It almost has that as well; the portrait Churchill painted of Castlerosse reclining suggestively always raised that possibility. And she’s such an alluring character – beautiful, ambitious, manipulative, then tragic. She died young, alone and lonely, of an overdose.

The slide is my favourite detail. I wonder if it’s still there and, if so, whether the King of Saudi Arabia, who now owns the house, uses it. Of course he does.

It gets better: on closer inspection, I think you can see Churchill’s trunks floating after splashdown. Ha, they’ve come off – he’s naked in the water. It’s certainly a different image from cigar and victory sign. Maybe history does need to be rewritten after all.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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